On the Screen: There are books on my TV!

Summer is the season for miniseries, and this year has seen a bumper-crop of bite-sized series for your viewing pleasure. The great thing about mini-series, particularly ones developed for summertime, is that they are guaranteed attention-grabbers.  Gone are the days when summer was nothing more than re-runs and series marathons.  Studios want to keep ratings as high as possible year-round, and thus are willing to pay a pretty penny in production costs and casting to ensure that viewers come home from the beach, or the pool, or the game, (or the library!) early to check out the newest adventures of their favorites characters.

Here at the Free For All, we’ve already discussed two of the best miniseries out there right now, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on BBC America, and Poldark,  which has been renewed for a second season, much to my father’s delight.  But there are a number of other quality shows that might just tickle your fancy during these increasingly hot summer days, and the best part is that many of them are based on books, which are much easier to take along on your summertime adventures than a TV, and which don’t require an internet connection to enjoy–once you’ve downloaded them, naturally, if that is your preferred method of reading.   So have a look at some mini-series and the books that inspired them, and see what tickles your imagination…

MV5BMjMxMDA0NDM5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDMwNTIxNjE@._V1_SY317_CR12,0,214,317_AL_Fear the Walking Dead: This spin-off of the wildly popular show The Walking Dead has been getting a great deal of attention, primarily because AMC has yet to announce an official release date (it’s sometime in August, but, like the zombie-apocalypse itself, we might not know about it until it’s already happening).  What we do know is that this series is set in Los Angeles, and shows us how the world transformed into the dusty, fear-ravaged, hungry zombie-scape that we learned to love from the original show.  Though it features a different cast and a different plotline, this show will bring viewers right up to the point where The Walking Dead begins.  For readers, come in and check out Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series that inspired the show.

250px-Under_the_Dome_intertitleUnder the Dome: Now in it’s third season, this summertime series tells and expands Stephen King’s novel of the same name.  Set in the town of Chester’s Mill, this show examines what happens to a seemingly ordinary place when an inexplicable, invisible, and impenetrable force isolates them completely from the outside world.  Though the show’s writers and creators have taken some liberties with the material, overall, King’s work is evident throughout this show; he is one of the executive producers, wrote the season two pilot, and appeared in a brief cameo (you can see it here).  For those who would like a refresher course, the library has copies of Season 1 and Season 2 on DVD.

Wayward_Pines_Intertitle (1)Wayward Pines: It’s taken a bit of effort for this series to get rolling, but since it began in May, it has captured viewers and reviewers alike–and it’s always delightful to see their shock-fueled, gaping reactions to critical plot twists that readers knew was coming.  Fans of Brett Crouch’s horror/sci-fi trilogy that beings with Pines will know all about the weird little town of Wayward Pines, Idaho, and the people who live there.  But for U.S. Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke, who ends up there alone after a terrible car accident to find two of his partners missing, the mystery has only begun.  Rumors are that this show will be renewed for a second season, which is great news for those of us who know all the creepy revelations yet to come.

The_Whispers_ABCThe Whispers:  “Who is Drill?” has become a mantra in our household this summer, but you can answer that question right now by checking out Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour”, which provided the inspiration for this series.  Though The Whispers takes Bradbury’s concept much, much further, it’s impressive to see how well the original story has stood the test of time.  Bradbury’s work frequently featured childhood, and that magical, often terrifying moment when childhood dies.  This story–and this show–perhaps encapsulating that theme the best, emphasizing the dangers that can come from not taking children’s games as seriously as the children do.

Zoo_IntertitleZoo: Though his delivery is a topic of some debate, there is no doubt that James Patterson can come up with a fascinating premise, and this mini-series, based on his 2012 book, co-authored with his frequent collaborator Michael Ledwidge, is one of his most intriguing.  Our erstwhile hero, Jackson Oz, has dedicated his life, and destroyed his professional reputation, by trying to draw attention to the number of mammal attacks–a pattern that points to a concerted effort to wipe out the human species.  This is a series that has received world-wide attention (Australia has fast-tracked each episode, so that it airs a day after the US broadcast), and it will be interesting to see how audiences react to Jackson’s theories and evidence.

In related news: Several of these shows have announced DVD releases of these shows, so you’ll soon be able to borrow them from the library and catch up on anything you might have missed!

Saturdays @ the South: Chocolate

I tried to think of a better title for this week’s post, maybe something with a pun like last week’s post or something more attention-grabbing, but then I thought, what’s more attention-grabbing than chocolate in its purest, unadulterated form? So the simple title stays in the hopes that chocolate lovers will naturally gravitate towards something they enjoy.

It’s no secret that we at the South Branch love food, as evidenced by one of my posts last month. The food programs we have at the South are perennially popular and I’m continuously working to keep our cookbook section current, relevant and interesting. This Thursday, July 16th at 7PM we’re offering a program featuring none other than chocolate! Local historian Anthony Sammarco will be talking about the 250-year history of the Baker’s Chocolate company. Not only did I have no idea that the Baker’s chocolate I see in every supermarket was a local company (based out of Dorchester), I also had no idea that they’d been in business for over two centuries! And don’t worry, true to my spoiler-free promise this is only the very beginning of the things Mr. Sammarco will be talking about. There’s much more to find out!

So if you enjoy chocolate, local history or the off chance that you might get to have a chocolate snack at the library, come on by the South Branch this Thursday night. Mr. Sammarco will be selling and signing copies of his book The Baker Chocolate Company: A Sweet History, but a purchase is not required. If you’d like a preview, you can find the book here.


If you simply can’t get enough chocolate (who can, really?), here are some suggestions that may ease some of those cravings:

3612592How to Make Chocolate Candies by Bill Collins

The South Branch hosted Chef Bill Collins this past winter for a session on making chocolate candies at home and he really knew his stuff. This book is the culmination of his research into mastering some basic techniques in order to replicate the chocolate-making techniques of skilled chocolatiers at home. This book will guide you through different types of chocolate, simple methodology, equipment and storage tips in clear, plain language. From there he provides detailed recipes for fudge, barks, molded chocolates, truffles and more. If you’d like to impress friends and family with quality homemade candies, this little guide will help you do just that.

Devils’ Food Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke

2978456Joanne Fluke is a heavy-hitter in the cozy mystery field, thrilling fans not only with charming murder mysteries solved by baker and amateur sleuth Hannah Swenson, but with enticing recipes that compliment her stories. Forgoing the in-title puns of her peer Diane Mott Davidson, Fluke gets right to what’s important, titling her books after desserts. Her recipes are so popular she even collected them in a Hannah Swenson cookbook. In this chocolaty adventure, a friend-of-a-friend is murdered, found face-down in a devils’ food cake and Hannah uses the natural comfort that is chocolate and baked goods to poke around where the police don’t have as much luck. As with all of Fluke’s books, come for the murder, stay for the recipes!

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

1547830Joanne Harris’s poetic novel follows Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk as they arrive in a small town in southern France and open a charming little chocolate shop… right at the beginning of Lent and across the street of the local parish. As the town chooses sides between church and chocolate, relationships are tested and forged. Harris’ work is a beautiful love letter to chocolate, family and what “home” truly means. Her prose will wrap you like like a velvety chocolate coating over a sweet, ripe strawberry creating an indulgent, hedonistic but all together delightful read. If you’d like to indulge more, you can follow Vianne and Anouk’s adventures in The Girl with No Shadow and Peaches for Father Francis.


2008774No, it’s not deja vu; no need to adjust your computer screen.  Harris’s book was made into a terrific movie and the two are different enough that I think the movie warrants its own recommendation. The overall vibe and the same plot as Harris’s novel are certainly present in the movie, but the cinematic effort crystallizes some themes and glosses over others to the point where reading the book and watching the movie are very different experiences. Juliette Binoche plays Vianne and her 1950s style in this movie is truly enviable. Johnny Depp gives a great performance as an Irish wanderer and Alfred Molina as Francis Reynaud nearly steals the show from the amazing chocolate creations. This is one of my favorite movies and it brings Harris’s setting and characters to life beautifully.

The Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking with Fine Chocolate by Robert Steinberg & John Scharffenberger

2398302If all of this chocolate fiction has you itching to get into the kitchen, you may want to try this cookbook from Robert Steinberg and  John Scharffenberger (of the artisinal Scharffen Berger chocolate company). With stunning photos and chocolate recipes of all varieties (I’m particularly intrigued by the savory options that pair the richness of chocolate with main-dish meats), even the most hardcore chocoholic will be hard-pressed not to find satisfaction in these pages.

I hope this week’s post has satisfied some cravings (and maybe even fired a few cravings up) and I hope to see you on Thursday night!

Five Book Friday!

For those of you who thrive on quirky library-related details, July at the library means the start of a new fiscal year, and, thus, the arrival of lots and lots of new books arriving at our doors.  They will be making their debut on our shelves soon (and a few lucky tomes will be featured here, as well!).  So, without further ado, here is our first Five Book Friday of July….

3605668Invasion of Privacy: Christopher Reich’s new big-brother thriller begins with the death of federal agent Joe Grant in a shoot-out near Austin, Texas.  But when his wife, Mary, hears the details about the event, she begins to realize that things just don’t add up.  Joining forces with a recently-fired investigative reporter, Mary soon uncovers a conspiracy that deals with the richest and most powerful Americans, and the most advanced surveillance system known to mankind.  This is a stand-alone thriller from an author whose work has received glowing attributes from fans and reviewers alike.

3639241Second Life: S.J. Watson’s first book, Before I Go To Sleep had readers riveted, anxious, and guessing to the very last scene.  Now he has turned his talents to another psychological thriller that Library Journal calls “an exciting mix of sex, murder, and mystery to please adrenaline junkies”.  Julia’s quiet, idealistic world is shattered by the brutal murder of her sister, and when she learns that Kate had been using a website to indulge in various fantasies with strangers, Julia begins searching there for clues.  But as she slips deeper into the virtual world she has discovered, and the intense relationships she forms there, Julia finds herself in very real danger of losing herself, and everyone she thought she loved.

3573538Sidekicked: John David Anderson’s new release puts the spotlight on the superhero’s most invaluable companions in this wonderfully fast-paced, action-packed, and clever adventure.  Just because thirteen-year-old Andrew Bean is a member of H.E.R.O., a secret organization that trains superhero sidekicks, doesn’t mean life is easy.  His super-senses make him the most sensitive kid in school, and he is having a terrible time trying to keep his secret identity a secret.  But when a fearsome and powerful supervillain begins wreaking havoc, Andrew’s world collide as he resolves to restore order and justice all by himself.

3633656The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey: Perhaps you have to be of a certain age to think this is the greatest book ever, but for those of us who grew up playing the Oregon Trail, wiping the western plains of all animal life, breaking axles, and dying of cholera, Rinker Buck’s new non-fiction release might be the highlight of our summer.  Buck traveled the route of the Oregon Trail in an honest-to-goodness covered wagon, and his book is part history, part memoir, and part utterly-unique travel memoir detailing the hardships, joys, revelations, and tribulations of this epic journey that hasn’t been attempted in over a century.

3634638The Border: Robert McCammon’s books are some of the most unconventional, appealing, and well-told around, and this new book, though somewhat bewildering in its premise, sounds like just the kind of wildly imaginative, epic adventure at which he excels.  On a planet Earth that has been ravaged by warring alien civilizations, the hideout on Panther Ridge is the last bastion of humanity.  But the humans who hide there are threatened day and night by shock-troops, mutants, and pollution.  Out of this futuristic hell, one boy, an amnesiac who has named himself Ethan, determines to learn the powers that will save humanity–if he can survive long enough to try.

We hope you find something here to tickle your fancy, and wish you a bright and adventurous weekend!

Happy Birthday, Mervyn Peake!

MP Peake head and shoulders

Today is the 114th birthday of one of the most remarkable, surprising, and under-appreciated writers you haven’t (yet) read.  Though named in a public poll as one of the “best British writers since 1945”, Mervyn Peake hasn’t got the same credit in the US–and perhaps that’s because it’s so difficult to categorize both the man and his considerable body of work.  But readers who take a look at both Peake’s artwork and his incredible writings are in for a rare treat.

Mervyn Peake was born in 1911 in Kuling China to British missionary parents.  Though a writer from an early age (he apparently wrote his first novella at the age of eleven), he was also a gifted artist, receiving public acclaim and gallery space while still in university.  At the outbreak of the Second World War, Peake enlisted to be a war artist–a post that was established during the First World War for a very select group of artists who were charged with capture the day-to-day moments and moods of the war in a way that photography could never do.  Most war artists’ work was used as pro-national propaganda, though some had a decidedly pacifist bent.  Peake’s work, however, was so far outside the box that he may have lost sight of it entirely…he imagined an An Exhibition by the Artist, Adolf Hitler, where horrific images of war would be attributed to Hitler, and displayed alongside deeply ironic titles.  Though his sketches were purchased by the war office, they consistently rejected his applications.  As a result, Peake was drafted into the Army.

Though he continued writing during the war, the stress of his work, and continuous rejection of his application to become a war artist combined in 1942 to induce a nervous breakdown, and Peake was discharged in 1943.  Though this time would certainly leave its mark, it was also these war years that inspired Peake to write the books that would establish his name in the pantheon of literature.

jacketThe first of these, Titus Groanwas published in 1946 (the second book, Gormenghast, was published in 1950, and the third, Titus Alone was published in 1959).  In this book, Peake first introduced readers to the strange and strangely beautiful world of Gormenghast, an enormous, decaying castle that forms its own walled world.  Gormenghast is the home of the Groan Dynasty, which rules their domain according to an overwhelmingly complicated series of traditions, ceremonies, and rituals that have always existed, and shall always continue to exist–until the day a new heir is born to the Groan family.  Titus Groan is meant to be the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, but his presence disrupts the day’s ceremonies.

In the bowels of the castle, at the same time as Titus’ birth, a young boy escapes from the steamy hell of the kitchens and begins his ascension to the sunlight.  His name is Steerpike, and he is, in many ways the villain of this world.  Peake wrote of him:


If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing – flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it.

Yet Steerpike is so much more than a villain.  He is ruthless and fearless, clever and mad, horrible, and yet so completely compelling that it’s impossible not to be drawn to him, and fascinating by his Machiavellian tactics for gaining control of the castle that forms his prison.

Peake never completed the Gorgemghast cycle.  He suffered from early onset dementia and, later, Parkinson’s disease, conditions which robbed him of both his creative outlets in time.  However, in 2001, the Mervyn Peake Awards were established in the UK, celebrating and encouraging the artistic endeavors of people with Parksinon’s, in the hope that his legacy will live on through others.

jacketgormThough Peake is often compared to Tolkein (whose work was inspired from his experiences in the First World War), he himself saw his work as far less philosophical and far more social commentary.  As a result, though Gormenghast is certainly a work of fantasy, it is also a fascinating allegory about the rise of fascism that Peake witnessed first hand, as well as a searingly funny social commentary.  He captures the absurdity of the aristocracy, and the fustiness of ritual with pitch-perfect and razor-sharp wit, but does it all with such heart and sympathy that it’s impossible not to feel some kind of ties to even the most grotesque secondary character becomes something compelling.  Gormenghast grows and evolves outside the pages of the book, wrapping around the reader and pulling them into the maze of rituals and relationships, betrayals and triumphs.

Though certainly not an easy read, the three books that make up the Gormenghast Trilogy are irresistible, rewarding books that deserve a far wider audience.  You can come in and check them out today in celebration of Peake’s birthday, or watch the superb mini-series that was made by the BBC.   2701108Though it only covers the first two books, give or take, the performances are so rich, and the scenic details so bizarre and detailed that it is a worthy complement to Peake’s books.  Starring a very young and magnetically manic Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike, Neve Campbell as the heartbreakingly naive Lady Fuschia, and featuring stunning work by the late Christopher Lee and the overwhelmingly talented Stephen Fry, even those not interested in reading the books should check out this DVD…it’s the perfect escape from these sultry summer nights!

And be sure, while you are savoring the world of Gorhemghast, to wish Mervyn Peake a very happy birthday.  I’m sure he’d appreciate the sentiment.

Wednesday at the West: More Tea and Books

literateaThe first week of the month means that once again lovers of tea and books gather at the West Branch to indulge in these two passions for an hour.

This month’s tea was pomegranate green, which was served iced.

For a full list of books and news discussed by library staff, check out the July Literatea Newsletter.  Of course, things really got interesting when the ladies of Literatea started discussing their recent book recommendations.

In the world of book news, one of the hot tidbits is still the upcoming release of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman (released in 7 days… but who’s counting?).  One participant suggested that book lovers may want to check out the new American Masters biography about Harper Lee that will be on PBS this coming Friday, July 10th.

Meanwhile, until you can get your hands on Lee’s new offering, you may want to check out these other titles suggested by the voracious readers at Literatea:

beautiful ruinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walters




savingfishSaving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan




suprememacaroniThe Supreme Macaroni Company by Adriana Trigiani




lovelossLove, Loss and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman

(This novel was adopted into a play with Nora Ephron)


touchofstardustA Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott




claraandmrtiffanyClara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland




deadwakeDead Wake by Erik Larson




icecreamqueenThe Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman



outlanderOutlander by Diana Gabaldon

(also recommended was the TV adaptation of this book series)



haroldfryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

(If you have read or read this one and enjoy it, note that the sequel was just released: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy)


brokenharborBroken Harbor and other novels by Tana French




soulsatnightOur Souls at Night by Kent Haruf




hedgehogElegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery




fifthgospelThe Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell




zookeepersThe Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman




invisiblecityInvisible City and Run You Down by Julia Dahl




underordersUnder Orders and other novels by Dick Francis



And that fellow bibliophiles, should keep you happily reading until the first of August when we return with more books and tea that you won’t want to miss.

Wonder Woman and Nancy Drew: How I Spent My Holiday Weekend


This past holiday weekend, your Blog-Manager Fairy Princess was in Savannah, as part of the World History Association annual conference.  It was a terrific–if unnecessarily humid–trip, full of fascinating talks and interesting conversations, and lots and lots of book recommendations.  There were a number of fascinating talks given about using alternative texts and materials in the classroom; my favorite was on the use of comic books as history text.

As literacy tools, comics are invaluable.  They engage both the linguistic and the visual aspects of the brain, making connections between the two in ways that traditional texts and textbooks don’t. But they can also teach about aspects of culture that textbooks can’t, or won’t.  One of the best examples of this, is the iconic heroine Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman, made her debut in DC Comics in January 1942.  She was the brain-child of psychologist William Marston (who, incidentally, invented the modern polygraph machine).  Marston believed that women were more inherently honest than men, and generally more capable in stressful or dangerous situations.  His goal in creating Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman), was to present a heroine who was strong, confident, and successful as both a superhero and as a professional in a male dominated world.  Under Marston’s guidance, Wonder Woman not only defended America from Nazis, evil monopolies, and corporate inequality, she also taught young people–young women especially–to stand up for themselves and believe in their own strength.



Marston, like his heroine, had to battle to convince DC Comics of Wonder Woman’s viability, despite high readership among both boys and girls.  When DC formed the Justice League of America under Gardner Fox, Wonder Woman was made an honorary member…and the group secretary, who kept notes while the men went off to save the world.  When Marston realized what was going on, he wrested back control of his character, and proceeded to write comics about what Wonder Woman actually did while acting as secretary–turns out she wasn’t behind the desk most of the time!


Following Marston’s death in 1947, the Wonder Woman franchise passed into the hands of Robert Kanigher, who began transforming Wonder Woman into the more sexualized, less assertive figure that we think of today.  But it’s clear that studying the origins of Wonder Woman can help us tell a different story about contemporary social and gender issues in America than traditional textbooks permit.

This led to a discussion about another pop heroine of the same era–Nancy Drew.  Nancy Drew was the brain child of Edward Stratemeyer, who created the Hardy Boys Series in 1926.  The series was so popular that Stratemeyer decided to extend the franchise to girls–even though he believed a woman’s place was in the home.  However, the series’ first primary author, Midred Benson, created a woman far different from Stratemeyer’s original idea.

Mildred Benson with her Nancy Drew books
Mildred Benson with her Nancy Drew books

The original Nancy Drew was sassy and feisty; she carried a gun, knew how to protect herself, and she did it well.  Like Wonder Woman in many ways, Nancy lived in a kind of utopia where the Depression didn’t hurt, where war was far away, and where you could always have clean clothes and dinner.  But she also provided a model for young girls that was wildly different from the woman she became.  By the 1950’s, Nancy had a boyfriend to whom she deferred regularly, and learned to hold her tongue rather than speak her mind.  Though the books were shortened in order make writing and reading a faster process, they also omitted a great deal of the power that Nancy originally had.

Learning about these heroines and their history was fascinating, and I love the idea that kids get to read these texts in their classroom.  That discussion has led me through our catalog to learn more about them both, so I thought I would share my findings with you!

3565459The Secret History of Wonder Woman: Jill Lepore’s book has been hailed as a landmark in pop culture history, and in the history of comic books as a genre.  She details, in wonderfully accessible prose, the early years of Wonder Woman, as well as her emphatically unique creator, William Marston.  Prominent in this story is Marston’s wives….yes, both of them.  Though he was only legally married to Elizabeth, they both welcomed Olive Byrne into their home, and Elizabeth and Olive remained together after Marston’s death.  These two women were critical to the creation of Wonder Woman (and Marston’s other inventions), and Lepore gives them their due in her fascinating work.

3551789Wonder Woman unbound : the curious history of the world’s most famous heroine: Tim Hanley’s book covers the same time period as Lepore’s book, though in less depth, but also looks at her evolution over the course of the twentieth century, and the ways in which she challenged and conformed to expectations of the day.  He also confronts some of Marston’s atypical themes of bondage that appear throughout the Wonder Woman comics; she is repeatedly tied up, chained up, or laced into a straightjacket, but escapes them all (and teaches other women how to break the bonds that hold them) because those who are keeping them captive are not worthy.  It’s an interesting theme that is far more complex than many authors have considered–up until now.

51VVVVysRdL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The mysterious case of Nancy Drew & the Hardy boys: Authors Carole Kismaric & Marvin Heiferman trace not only the origins of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but also consider their creators and authors, uncovering a story about social issues, feminism, and capitalism in America.  They talk about the feuds inside Grosset and Dunlap over Nancy’s temper, the treatment of racial minorities in the books, and the need to keep up with growing readers who were increasingly fascinated by television.  This is a book that will make you rethink what you know about quintessential American literature, but also the publishing market and commercialism in general.  And that cover is just too good for words.

2319779Girl sleuth : Nancy Drew and the women who created her Melanie Rehak discusses the origins of Nancy Drew, with a focus on the two women who were responsible for her: Mildren Benson, and Stratemeyer’s daughter, Harriet, who took over the franchise when he died.  What emerges is a story about one fictional character, and how the expectations of generations were tied up in her adventures.  This is a fun, perceptive read that makes each contributor to the Nancy Drew cannon a fully-realized character in their own right.


Saturdays @ the South: Go Fourth and Grill

4th of julymoney saving tipsIndependence Day means many things to many people. Clearly, there is the patriotism celebrating the birth of our nation that comes with this holiday. For some people it means the spectacular fireworks displays or the opportunity to get away for a long weekend. There are many more possibilities, but for me and my family, the 4th of July meant one thing: grilling.

I have the fondest memories about our 4th of July barbecues: the sun, the conversations, the running into the house with the food when it downpoured. (There was always at least a 60% chance that we would be rained on; it never stopped us.) Each year was met with anticipation. It was a chance to get the “good rolls” from the bakery in the next town, an excuse for my mom and grandmother to unearth the pizzelle makers to make dessert and an opportunity to have steak (if it was on sale and my grandfather liked the way the meat looked). My grandfather would helm the grill while I hovered by him. I watched as he turned the meat and waited for him to slip little tastes to me and our dog who was hovering just as eagerly on the other side of him. He taught me grill safety, how to clean it and as I got old enough, how to grill the food as well.

Despite all of these food-associated memories, these celebrations weren’t really about the food. This was partly because it was good, quality time spent with family and friends and party because the food just wasn’t that great. In my eyes, my grandfather was a god among men; he just wasn’t one that was handy on the grill. Every year, we treated ourselves to charred sausages (it was only until much, much later after I had taken over the grilling to let him relax at these shindigs that we learned to parboil the sausages to prevent the outer coating of char), tough, well-done steak and dry burgers. Our backyard barbecues were great, but they were definitely not about the food. As I got older, the roles shifted and my grandfather stood by and chatted with me while I did the grilling and slipped him and the dog a few tastes. But I also learned to make the food tastier. I taught myself to marinate and grill chicken, the aforementioned parboiling sausages trick and how to grill for vegetarians. The barbecues weren’t any less about the company, but they did become somewhat more about the food.

Part of how I learned to improve my grilling skills was through cookbooks and we have a bunch of books here at the South Branch that I can only wish had been available to me when I started grilling. To say that the world of grilling has changed for the better would be a gross understatement. People are paying more attention to meat, and even more attention to the non-meat entities that can become immensely tasty when hit with a bit of flame. One of the best ways that grilling books have improved is that they focus on the whole meal, not necessarily just what’s hitting the grill. They accompany main dishes with off-grill items that can compliment the flavor of the meat (or meat alternatives in some cases). Here are a few of my new favorites that are on our shelves right now:

Fresh Grilling: 200 Delicious good-for-you seasonal recipes3541913

This Better Homes and Garden tome is packed with mouth-watering illustrations for nearly every recipe, an introduction to grills, fuel options and an at-a-glance grilled vegetable guide that blew my mind. (Can you really put strawberries or fennel on the grill? Yes, yes indeed.) It’s not comprehensive, but that’s just makes it wonderfully manageable. This book has great, non-traditional ideas in addition to the expected fare, so you’re likely to find a new favorite recipe here.

The Essential New York Times Grilling Cookbook

3521785What this book lacks in photos and illustrations it more than makes up for in content. There are hundreds of recipes here that cover the usual, the unusual and the downright surprising from all around the world. Each section is broken down by meat type, plus sections on starters, veggies, marinades and rubs, and desserts. Brief essays with enticing titles like “Happy Birthday, Hamburger!” and “A Dessert that Dances on the Grill” start off each section and there are some great “Looking Back” recipes pulled from the NYT archives. Don’t let this one intimidate you. There’s a lot there, but it’s there to pick and choose as you please.

The Big-Flavor Grill: No-Marinade, No-Hassle Recipes

3522463Chris Schlesinger and John Willougby, both Massachusetts residents, have created a relaxed, no-nonsense attitude to grilling in this book that can be very appealing for anyone who doesn’t have a lot of time or just wants good, grilled food with minimal effort. The book’s sections cover different meats plus vegetables (“Vegetables love the grill, too”) and drinks (because everyone needs a delicious wash-down after a good, grilled meal). Each section starts off with a “Super-Basic” recipe that pares grilling down to the utter essentials (usually the meat, oil, salt and pepper and that’s it) and they tell you how to cook it without killing it. If you get more comfortable, you can always try out some of the amazing flavors they have featured here in recipes that are only slightly more complicated than their basics.

Cook’s Illustrated Meat Book

3577550I’m not going to lie; local institution America’s Test Kitchen and their accompanying magazine Cook’s Illustrated have always intimidated me a bit. There is an underlying sense expecting perfection because once you’ve controlled all the elements and gotten the best ingredients, how can you not achieve greatness? My messy kitchen experiments rarely follow their expectations but there’s no denying their recipes are tried-and-true. This book doesn’t focus solely on grilling, but it does focus solely on meat. (Vegetarians will want to steer clear of this one.) The recipes include many classic restaurant dishes like Chicken Saltimbocca and Porl Lo Mein. Plus with recipe titles like “perfect poach chicken” and Cook’s Illustrated signature illustrations, it’s hard not to be tempted.

Smoke & Spice: Cooking with Smoke, the Real Way to Barbecue

3561145I haven’t talked much about traditional barbecue because it is really a tradition of its own and aside from a slow-cooker pulled pork, isn’t really in my cooking repertoire. But I couldn’t have a grilling blog entry without at least addressing the sauce-covered elephant in the room. If you want a solid introduction to classic barbecue and smoke techniques, this book is a great place to start. Not only will Cheryl and Bill Jamison give you a solid introduction to using smoke both outdoors and indoors, but they’ve compiled a collection of great, accessible recipes with tantalizing photos. With a laid-back tone, this revised James Beard Award-winner may just make you want to spend this weekend building a smoker in your backyard.

Till next Saturday, dear patrons, have a happy, safe Independence Day, however you celebrate.

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass